Social System Design Lab Tackles Complex Problems Using Community-Based Science

Faculty; Global; Research; Social Work

Engaging community members to help design solutions to the most challenging problems in social work and public health worldwide defines the work of the Brown School’s Social System Design Lab (SSDL), an innovative research and consulting team that is unique in the U.S. The SSDL has been called upon to tackle issues as diverse as malnutrition in Peru, access to health care in Florida, and police relationships with community activists in South Carolina.

Founded in 2009, SSDL’s approach is gaining increasing recognition in the field and drawing students in larger numbers to the Brown School, according to SSDL’s director, Ellis Ballard, an assistant professor of practice. “We are seeing more and more students who are seeking tools to bridge community voice with scientific evidence – and see those two ideas as intimately intertwined,” he said.

A current project addresses the double burden of malnutrition in Peru to improve food production, distribution, and consumption. The study aims to engage community stakeholders in two regions of Peru to identify structural drivers of over- and under-nutrition using Community Based System Dynamics approaches and develop a computer simulation model to explore the effects of potential interventions that address both issues in tandem. It’s a collaboration between the SSDL; The CRONICAS center at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru; Imperial College London, and modelers from Bogota, Colombia. The funder is the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the United Kingdom. 

“The project came out of a prior research collaboration we were part of around systems science and urban health in Latin America,” Ballard said. Peruvian partners wanted to look at the unintended consequences of interventions to address undernutrition, stunted growth, and anemia that resulted in higher rates of obesity and related health problems. “How do you not replace one problem with another?” Ballard said. He hopes the answer will come from workshops in different regions of Peru with participants from both urban and remote populations to determine how each views, produces and consumes food, and then create models to identify policies to alleviate both.

The SSDL’s team in the project includes Clarissa Gaona Romero, an undergraduate research assistant at WashU who is applying for the 3/2 MPH program at the Brown School. She connected to the SSDL in high school as a participant in its Changing Systems Youth Fellowship. On the Peru project, she’s been developing learning resources in Spanish around system dynamics concepts to use with workshop participants this spring.

“It’s really cool to be exposed to conversations in Spanish on academic subjects I care about and learning more about public health in other countries,” she said. “I don’t have that opportunity in regular classes. System dynamics gave me a concrete way of thinking through complex problems and breaking down those problems.” Romero said she enjoys talking with people and hearing their stories, giving deeper perspectives about behavior and outcomes than data alone.

A major in anthropology, global health and environment, Romero said she “absolutely loved” her high school experience with SSDL and planned one of the community summits on public health in St. Louis. “I was already interested in public health, and the experience helped expose me to more tools in public health and gave me confidence in the value of the perspective I can bring to the table,” she said, which influenced her decision to come to WashU.

Designing community-based workshops with a multi-national team were already complex, but the COVID pandemic made the challenge harder. The learning resources that Romero helped with are now being used to remotely prep a facilitation team, including team members in Peru and from Colombia, and the SSDL to facilitate in-person workshops in Peru this Spring.

Ballard is planning to attend at this point. Still, the lab is also cultivating a team that includes members in Peru, Colombia, and London to facilitate workshops. One of its aims is to expand their use worldwide and refine how they’re used, which may differ based on culture and place.

COVID has affected most, if not all of the Brown School’s research centers, but it’s had had a particularly significant impact on the SSDL, Ballard said.

“The foundation of our work has been built around the human-to-human connection of in-person facilitation of workshops, and COVID has made that not feasible,” he said. “It has forced innovation in how to do our work virtually, but it’s also leading us to adapt our role to focus more on capacity building and coaching. It’s been a good thing, but also hard.” Building networks of practitioners and researchers in the field will change the lab’s own dynamics. “That’s overall a healthy thing and will be a lasting thing,” he said.

The pandemic taught that virtual workshops are not a direct substitute for in-person workshops. “That’s an important discovery,” Ballard said. “Virtual workshops are effective for data collection, but community building, engagement and sharing are much harder in these virtual spaces. It’s led us to reconstruct what we’re doing and diversify our methods.” Those methods now include smaller workshops and sometimes one-on-one interviews rather than convening multi-hour hands-on workshops with participants.

 Whatever methods are finally settled on, they will include communities in addressing local issues, a feature of the SSDL that drew Daiszha Cooley, a second-year MSW/MPH student at the Brown School, a research assistant with the SSDL. Cooley discovered the lab while researching graduate school and found that its system dynamics and associated courses were unique and just what she was looking for.

“It made me really excited about the Brown School,” she said. “When I graduate, I want to be centered in community and part of that work is bringing their voices into the decision-making process. These models we’re building are rooted in what people are experiencing and how multiple things interact, especially around racial and social equity.” Cooley had worked with youth to prevent substance abuse, and that experience drove home the usefulness of the lab’s multi-faceted approaches. “If you only hone in on factors that push people to abuse substances, you’re missing a big part of the story,” she said.

Cooley’s public health specialization is epidemiology/biostatistics, and her social work concentration is an individualized program focused on community-based social change and action to promote wellness. This spring, she’s a teaching assistant in the lab’s Designing Sustainable Policies and Programs class.

One of her favorite projects has been helping to design a workshop for a pilot project to examine the conflict between the community and law enforcement in North Charleston, South Carolina. Figuring out how people could express their views and facilitating the in-person workshops advanced her own views, too. “As a Black woman who hadn’t engaged in law enforcement, it was a really cool experience,” she said. “It helped people shift their way of thinking by making explicit things people don’t usually talk about. It shifted my perspective quite a bit.” The workshop was part of a larger, ongoing research project by East Carolina University to which the SSDL lent its expertise.

That effort is an excellent example of one of the basic tenets of Community Based System Dynamics work, Ballard said; To find effective ways of involving communities in solving their problems rather than dictating solutions to them. Or, as summarized by an analogy on the lab’s website: “Our role is to figure out the grammar of a discussion, not to write the sentences.”